MIDLAND, Mich. (Reuters) – Rising floodwaters unleashed by two dam failures submerged parts of the central Michigan town of Midland on Wednesday, displacing thousands of residents and spreading into a Dow Chemical Co plant in the riverfront city.
By late morning, floodwaters were confirmed to be “comingling with on-site containment ponds,” at the Dow plant, the company said in a statement, adding no employees had been hurt.
The National Weather Service (NWS) warned of “life-threatening” flooding as water levels of the Tittabawassee River in Midland, about 120 miles (193 km) northwest of Detroit, rose to historic levels.
“Never in my whole life have we seen the dam fail,” said Mark Bone, 53, a business owner chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners. “It flooded real bad in ‘86, but never like this.”
Even as flooding submerged parts of Midland, the county seat and home to some 42,000 people, under 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water, Bone said no injuries or deaths had been reported.
With authorities already coping with the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday called on the federal government to provide assistance.
About 10,000 people have been evacuated in Midland County, Whitmer said, after days of heavy rain caused the Tittabawassee to overflow its banks and breach the Edenville and Sanford dams.
“Experts are describing this as a 500-year event,” Whitmer told a news conference after a tour of the flood zone. She urged residents of low-lying areas to flee to higher ground.
National Guard troops assisted in transporting some evacuees out of harm’s way.
At an evacuation shelter inside Midland High School, about 2 miles (3 km) from the downtown riverfront, volunteers and evacuees wore face coverings to maintain social distancing recommended for curbing spread of the coronavirus.
One evacuee, 101-year-old Dot Costello, who fled her apartment with neighbor friends on Tuesday, said she was doing “fine,” but wished she “had a TV to watch the news.”
The Weather Service reported the Tittabawassee crested at midday at about 35 feet (10.67 meters) – some 3 feet (one meter) lower than had been expected.
FEMA AND MILITARY
A spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that as soon as it is safe, engineers will be sent to both dams to assist state and other authorities in an investigation into the cause of the breaches.
Video footage of the flood zone showed high water lapping around buildings in downtown Midland, partly submerging bridges and roads. Several residents were seen kayaking through flooded streets.
Dow Chemical, headquartered in Midland, said in a statement it had initiated its flood-preparedness plan.
All operating units, except for facilities needed for managing chemical containment, have been shut down, Dow said.
President Donald Trump, scheduled to tour a Ford Motors auto plant in Michigan on Thursday, said on Twitter he had dispatched teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. military to the flood-stricken area to lend support.
Trump, who had encouraged protesters demanding that Whitmer ease coronavirus stay-at-home orders, tweeting a “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” message weeks ago, chided her again on Wednesday, tweeting, “Governor must now ‘set you free’ to help. Will be with you soon!”
Questions also emerged about the past safety record of one of the breached dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2018 revoked the hydropower-generating license for the Edenville structure, accusing its operators of various deficiencies.
On Wednesday, the agency directed Boyce Hydro LLC, which owns both dams, to commission an independent analysis of the root cause of the two breaches. A representative of Boyce could not immediately be reached for comment.
Reporting by Rebecca Cook in Midland and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Aurora Ellis and Sandra Maler